Last year's Astros didn't play the winningest baseball in franchise history but did offer the most exciting. Dead as a doornail in mid-August -- 56-60 and in seventh place in the wild card standings - Houston roared to 36-10 finish, won its first ever playoff series, and came within four innings of the World Series.
Do the 2005 Astros have what it takes to expand on last year's accomplishments?
The rotation remains strong despite the loss of Wade Miller, but the bullpen thins out quickly after Brad Lidge, and the offense has some holes. Houston is good enough to contend, but not good enough to play deep into October.
New GM Tim Purpura had a tough winter. Taking over after Gerry Hunsicker's abrupt resignation, Purpura made a reasonable offer to second baseman Jeff Kent: $7 million with a $7 million vesting option for 2006 to a player who turns 37 in April. A more lucrative free-agent market and Kent's insistence on a no-trade clause killed the deal. Next came the agonizing decision to non-tender Wade Miller. Miller made $3.4 million in 2004 and almost certainly would have received a raise in arbitration despite missing three months with a frayed rotator cuff. Faced with the possibility of paying Miller to sit on the bench and heal his wounds, Houston cut him lose. Then, the situation got worse. Purpura and company reportedly offered premier free agent Carlos Beltran seven years and $108 million, only to lose out to the $119 million tendered by the New York Mets.
Taken individually, the offers and decisions surrounding each player are defensible and don't reflect poorly on the organization. They did retain Roger Clemens and inked Roy Oswalt to a two-year deal. On the whole, however, Houston let some tremendous talent escape and did nothing to replace it. The Astros signed exactly one player from another team to a Major-League contract: 44-year-old John Franco.
Houston hitters finished 2004 with an even 100 OPS+. Thanks to a league-best .274 average with runners in scoring position, they finished fifth of sixteen NL teams in runs scored. Unfortunately, two of their three best hitters play elsewhere and the replacements don't have nearly the resumes or upside. Beltran and Kent ranked behind only Lance Berkman in OPS+ last year. Jason Lane and presumably Chris Burke will take their places. Berkman himself, now the only truly fearsome hitter on the team, will miss the first month or so while recovering from knee surgery.
In short, the offense has clearly changed for the worse. In the worst-case scenario, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio decline further, Jose Vizcaino plays second regularly when Burke proves unworthy, Morgan Ensberg doesn't recover his power stroke, and Berkman returns late (forcing Orlando Palmeiro into regular action) and/or in ill form. As such, Houston could effectively punt the offense in five positions (P, C, 2B, SS, RF). All of those what-ifs won't occur, but some will. Houston desperately needs major contributions from Ensberg and Jason Lane to mitigate the loss of Beltran and Kent.
The Astros will struggle to approach last year's 803 runs, but it's possible. The aforementioned Ensberg and Lane have excelled in brief stints, Burke's 2004 AAA campaign was promising, and Biggio and Bagwell aren't dead yet.
A look at Houston's righty-heavy lineup:
Player Pos Age PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Brad Ausmus C 36 441 .248 .306 .325 64
Jeff Bagwell 1B 37 679 .266 .377 .465 117
Chris Burke * 2B 25 556 .315 .396 .507 N/A
Morgan Ensberg 3B 29 451 .275 .330 .411 91
Adam Everett SS 28 413 .273 .317 .385 81
Craig Biggio LF 39 691 .281 .337 .469 106
Jason Lane CF 28 155 .272 .348 .463 108
Lance Berkman - S RF 29 687 .316 .450 .566 161
* in AAA.
CATCHER - BRAD AUSMUS
Five years ago, Brad Ausmus was a fine defensive catcher who could provide some assistance with his bat. Now, he is actively harming his team. In 2004, Ausmus ranked thirteenth in OPS among the fourteen NL catchers with at least 300 at-bats. Various metrics indicate he has fallen from excellent to just average behind the plate, and his percentage of baserunners caught stealing fell to a career low of 26%. Ausmus becomes a free agent at season's end and Houston needs a legitimate replacement. They'll probably have to look outside the organization, since prospect John Buck departed for Kansas City as part of the Beltran trade.
FIRST BASE - JEFF BAGWELL
Sad to say, the future Hall-of-Famer is a shadow of his former self. Once the batting equivalent of General Sherman, Bagwell finished in the top ten in the NL in OPS+ every year from 1993-2000. In 2004, his .465 slugging percentage ranked eleventh among the twelve qualifying NL first basemen (twelfth place: Shea Hillenbrand). Likewise, his once-superior defense has declined to sub-replacement level because of a bum shoulder and general aging. Houston will pay him $32 million over the next two years and buy out his 2007 option at a cost of $12 million if he doesn't retire.
SECOND BASE? LEFT FIELD? - CRAIG BIGGIO
Houston signed Biggio for another season but has yet to decide where he'll play. As of this writing, Biggio was playing mostly at second base. He may split time between outfield and second depending on Berkman's knee and Burke's progress. The 38-year-old had a bizarre 2004, setting a career high in homers but a career low in walks. He also hit more fly balls than grounders for the first time ever. I'm not quite foolish enough to suggest that walks are better than homers, but Houston badly needs more of his high-OBP magic from the top of the order.
SHORTSTOP - ADAM EVERETT
Everett carries a slick glove that merits a spot in the lineup, just not the #2 spot he cluttered for much of last season. Everett finished with more sacrifice bunts than walks, dual testament to his impatience and former manager Jimy Williams's love of small ball. Everett tends to hit skyward despite not generating much power. This at least leads to few double plays.
THIRD BASE - MORGAN ENSBERG
Speaking of bizarre: After smacking 25 homers in 2003, Ensberg failed to hit a single one in the first three months of 2004 and had to share third base with Mike Lamb. Then, he homered in three consecutive games in early July and finished with ten on the season despite missing several weeks with back spasms. Ensberg isn't much of a defender but is a far cry better than Lamb. A return to 2003 form will salve some of the pain of Beltran's departure.
RIGHT FIELD, EVENTUALLY - LANCE BERKMAN
Someday, the standard MLB contract will stipulate that players be encased in Lucite during the offseason. Houston's best hitter tore an ACL playing flag football and won't play baseball until late April at best. With Beltran and Kent already gone, a Berkman-free lineup doesn't scare anyone. Berkman is playing for his next contract and has already waived off a four-year, $48 million offer from Houston.
CENTER FIELD - JASON LANE
Lane turns 28 in May and spent two years trapped behind Berkman, Biggio, Hidalgo and Beltran. Now, he'll play every day regardless of where Biggio ends up. Lane has a shiny .526 slugging percentage in limited action. His slugging percentage in AAA is a more modest .465 and probably a better indicator of his true ability. He won't remind anyone of Beltran in the field but won't embarrass himself.
SECOND BASE? OUTFIELD? DUGOUT? - CHRIS BURKE
The 25-year-old Burke seemed certain to take over for Jeff Kent after batting .315/.396/.507 in AAA and winning the Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year award, something I did not know existed until now. Or will he? Early reports indicate he may move to the outfield in favor of Biggio, a move I will politely describe as "perplexing." In a perfect world, he'll assert himself and claim the #2 spot from Adam Everett.
BENCH / REINFORCEMENTS
Always good for single and doubles, Mike Lamb popped a career-high fourteen homers and forced his way into a timesharing arrangement with Ensberg for much of the season. Lamb is an egregious defender yet versatile, able to play any corner infield or outfield spot. Jose Vizcaino has value as a backup middle infielder but doesn't help the team as an everyday player. Unfortunately, he'll do just that Burke falters or if Houston decides to go with veteran presence. Backup catcher Raul Chavez has a career OPS+ of 48, actually making Ausmus look good by comparison. Aging outfielder Orlando Palmeiro no longer hits well and needs to sit in a glass case, to be used only in an emergency. Young and blazingly fast outfielder Willy Taveras earned some big-league meal money as a pinch runner and defensive replacement last year but otherwise has never played above AA. Taveras is essentially powerless but hits for average and is willing to draw a walk. He should be the everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter in 2006 and has a chance to break in this season.
Player Age ERA ERA+ IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Roger Clemens 42 2.98 145 214 7.1 0.6 3.3 9.2
Roy Oswalt 27 3.49 123 237 8.8 0.6 2.4 7.8
Andy Pettitte - L 33 3.90 111 83 7.7 0.9 3.4 8.6
Brandon Backe 27 4.30 100 67 10.1 1.3 3.6 7.3
Tim Redding 27 5.72 75 101 11.2 1.3 3.8 5.0
Peter Munro 30 5.15 84 100 10.8 1.1 2.3 5.7
Carlos Hernandez - L 25 6.43 67 42 10.7 2.4 4.9 5.6
The rotation is the team strength and what will keep Houston from falling too far from last year's 92 wins. Clemens and Oswalt are as fine a 1-2 combination as exists in the Majors. During their 46-game sprint to the wild card, the Astros went 17-2 when Clemens or Oswalt started. A healthy Andy Pettitte should replace the respectable half-seasons provided by him and Miller last year. Brandon Backe jumped from zero to sixty in a few heady weeks last fall. The fifth starter… well, let's not kill the buzz just yet.
Though he couldn't hold the lead in Game Seven against St. Louis, the Rocket did everything else and sprinkled parmesan cheese on top. Clemens put forth his best season since 1998 with Toronto and earned his seventh Cy Young award. The 42-year-old will break down some day, maybe, but his peripherals show absolutely no sign of it. Nolan Ryan threw over 800 innings after turning 42; Clemens could do the same if he's interested.
Despite a nagging ribcage injury, Oswalt set career highs in innings and starts and led the league in both categories. He did not have an exceptional year overall by his standards, but his late-season heroics and twenty wins placed him third in the Cy Young voting. Oswalt dominates with a dynamite fastball and knee-bucking curve and throws in some sliders for good measure.
Pettitte's disappointing season ended August 12 after gamely pitching with a sore arm. At the time, his departure felt like the last nail in the coffin holding Houston's moribund playoff hopes. He visited the DL three times with various arm troubles and rarely pitched pain-free. After offseason surgery, he's pitching at nearly full speed and appears on course to start the season in full health. Billy Wagner returned from the same procedure will no ill effects. Houston hopes for the same from Pettitte because the alternatives don't inspire confidence.
Backe's season ended with an epic eight-inning, no-run performance against St. Louis in Game Five of the NLCS. Not bad for a guy who had been optioned to AAA in June. A converted position player, Backe suddenly put it all together during his exile to New Orleans and returned to Houston to make nine stretch-run starts, of which the team won seven. His last two months stand in very stark contrast to the mediocrity of his previous two-plus years in the Majors and high minors, so a repeat performance is by no means guaranteed. Still, he does have good stuff and obviously doesn't wilt under pressure, so he has a future. Backe also had an .889 OPS in 21 plate appearances. If Phil Garner wants to manage really creatively, he can use Backe as a pinch-hitter instead of Palmeiro.
5TH STARTER / REINFORCEMENTS
As with most teams, Houston has several unpalatable choices for the last spot in the rotation. Tim Redding fell back to earth hard after his breakout 2003. Never especially adept with his control or keeping the ball in the park, Redding's K/9 rate has plummeted from nine to five in three years. Former Blue Jay Pete Munro started nineteen games for Houston last year but is better suited to long relief. Opposing batters have a line of .304/.370/.458 against him. Former top prospect Carlos Hernandez is two years off rotator cuff surgery and probably will start in AAA. The surgery at least temporarily cost him some of the velocity he needs to compensate for his suspect control.
The real deal may be 24-year-old Ezequiel Astacio, who ratcheted up his strikeout rate considerably in AA. Astacio will have to announce his presence with aurhoity in order to make the trip to Houston immediately, but a midseason callup awaits. Demi-prospects Brandon Duckworth and Taylor Buchholz will try to revitalize their careers in AAA.
Merely dominant as a setup man, as a closer Lidge chopped down the mountain with the edge of his hand. His statistics appear stolen from women's fast-pitch softball: 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings, only 5.1 hits per nine innings allowed. Lidge features a fastball that can exceed 95 MPH and an ungodly slider. Lidge threw 106 innings including the playoffs. During a five-day stretch in the NLCS, he appeared in four games and threw eight innings and 108 pitches. Garner will have to resist the urge to ride him too hard.
Alas, Lidge's supporting cast is large and rampant with mediocrity. Getting leads intact from starter to Lidge could be a problem. Dan Wheeler pitched well, including eight scoreless playoff innings, after coming from the Mets in a late-season trade. Still, his overall record is spotty, and lefties chew him up (.884 OPS against). Chad Harville has some pretty minor-league numbers that have not translated into big-league success. He's ordinary. John Franco returns for his 73rd season after posting a career-worst 5.28 ERA and making all of eight appearances in the season's last nine weeks. Franco did handle lefties as usual but got killed against righties. Lefty Mike Gallo surrendered a homer every four innings and somehow managed a sub-5.00 ERA. The 27-year-old did pitch reasonably well in 2003 and has a promising minor-league track record as a reliever. Russ Springer didn't pitch as well as his 2.63 ERA would suggest and is highly unlikely to repeat that accomplishment. A sore shoulder derailed Turk Wendell's 2004 and continues to bother him in Spring Training.
Despite never having achieved ultimate glory, Houston has established itself as a model franchise. Over the last thirteen years, the Astros have four division titles, a wild card, and only one season below .500.
This year might be the second losing season in fourteen. I don't think Houston will fall quite that far, but the probability isn't small. I'll go with 83 wins and a third-place finish. My grumpy computer suggests 80.